Norman's St. Joseph's Catholic Church strives to unite Hispanic, non-Hispanic communities

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Though Norman has always been a predominantly white city, the Hispanic population has more than doubled in the past two decades, according to census data. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is home to many of these Hispanic families, celebrating the Spanish Mass for 25 years at the parish and integrating the white and Hispanic communities. 

The church, which was 5 percent Hispanic only two decades ago, is more than half Hispanic today, even though the number of parishioners, or members who attend St. Joseph’s, has not changed. The percentage of Hispanic students in the religious education program has gone from 50 to 95 percent in just 5 years.

The parish unites the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities, especially during a divisive political era. From leadership programs that tackle tough conversations, to the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute that sparks positive dialogue on Hispanic culture and history, St. Joseph’s is no stranger to integrating diverse communities.  

History

St. Joseph’s was the first Catholic parish in Norman. It was officially dedicated by Bishop Meerschaert in 1896, though the name had not been decided. German settlers in the area wanted the church to be named St. Joseph’s while Irish settlers favored St. Patrick’s. The parish was culturally diverse from the beginning.

In the 1960s, two new parishes were built in Cleveland County: St. Thomas More in Norman and St. Andrew’s in Moore. While this impacted the number of parishioners at the church, the following decades provided further influx of families.

In 1993, the third Catholic parish, St. Mark’s, was established in Norman. St Joseph’s lost more families to the new church.  

The following year St. Joseph’s had 1,000 registered families - about 950 were non-Hispanic and 50 were Hispanic. Deacon Angelo Lombardo of St. Joseph’s recognized the need to begin offering Mass in Spanish, so he and his wife, Annie Lombardo, inquired about starting one.

At the time, the current priest was getting ready to be reassigned, so he suggested going directly to Bishop Beltran to see if they could make it happen.

The Lombardos carried petitions requesting the Spanish Mass, asking fellow parishioners and community members to sign. They collected nearly 400 signatures. The archbishop responded promptly; he would consider the petition in his decision for reassigning a priest.

In the fall of 1994, Angelo said the church secretary knocked softly on his door.

“There’s a priest that wants to talk to you,” she said, poking her head in.

Ernest Flusche walked into his office. He was an older priest. He introduced himself.

“I understand that you have been contacting the archbishop about starting a Mass in Spanish,” Flusche said to Angelo. “When do you want to start?”

Angelo found himself rushing to find music and lectors. Annie searched for ministers.

St. Joseph’s celebrated the first Spanish Mass in Norman in November 1994. About 60 people came. 25 years later, about 600 attend one of the two Spanish Masses St. Joseph’s holds every Sunday.

Bridging the communities

The parish kept the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities parallel at first. The priority was to fulfill the basic needs of the Hispanic community through the sacraments, which are religious ceremonies performed in the Catholic Church.

“It’s easy to do these changes in a way that doesn’t affect the other groups,” Angelo said.

But there was a need to realize the parish as one family, bring the two groups together and celebrate things in common.

In 2008, Maria Ruiz, former Spanish professor at OU, Ignacio Ruiz Sr., OU Spanish professor Luis Cortest and the Lombardos talked about what they could do to bring the two groups together. The stage was set to create the Hispanic Cultural Institute, now known as the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute, and was approved by the archdiocese.

Cortest said he knew there was a good story to tell about Hispanic history, culture and community, in light of all the negative comments about the Hispanic community. He said today, more than a decade later, the image of Latin America is even worse. 

The institute’s mission is to “present a more positive and well-informed picture of the Spanish-speaking world.” They achieve this through a cultural teaching component and Spanish classes.

Every Tuesday evening, with the exception of summer and holiday recess, the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute meets for two-and-a-half hours for the sole purpose of learning about the Hispanic community.

At 6:50 p.m. every Tuesday, members of the institute file in to a meeting room at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Maria Ruiz, her son Ignacio Ruiz Jr. and Cortest stand by the tables of food. They encourage the students to overload their plates.

Familiar faces greet one another. Some have been attending these meetings for a decade, others started last month. Not all are Catholic — in fact, non-religious and Jewish people also gather around the tables to learn. The institute doesn’t just serve the church — it serves the Norman community.

By 7:15 p.m. everyone has settled in one of three rows of tables adjacent to a large screen. When Cortest walks to the front of the room, the crowd takes out their pens, notepads and binders packed with handouts. Then they stand for “Padre Nuestro.”

Cortest begins his lecture. Every week for 11 years he, or someone at the institute, has given a unique lecture. He may talk about the history of Mexico City, or invite a guest speaker to share their experiences about growing up in Venezuela. Maybe the group will be treated to Peruvian music.

As the lecture continues, the crowd remains attentive. Some look up words they don’t know and ask for spelling clarification on obscure terms. 

Ignacio Ruiz Jr. stands behind the podium and rapidly searches for images about the topics Cortest is discussing. When Cortest mentions an ancient landmark, Ruiz has it on the screen in seconds.

At the end, members compare notes to make sure they got every detail of the lecture. They have a 10-minute break before they divide into groups for Spanish classes. 

In the past, the institute has invited lecturers from Venezuela, to share the culture and history despite the turmoil in the country today. Professors from the University of Oklahoma have come to speak about topics ranging from the Cuban medical system, poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and flamenco dance.

“The presentations from Dr. Cortest are incredible,” Angelo said. “I learn things about my own culture that I never knew.”

As the Hispanic community in Oklahoma continues to grow, Angelo encourages clergy — deacons, priests and bishops — from around the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to come to the institute so they can better serve their parishes. 

Angelo and Annie continued to find other ways to integrate the two communities. They said they started hosting dinners and invited families from both communities. As relationships formed, Lombardo noticed that English-speaking families became confirmation sponsors for young Hispanic people.

Annie worked with groups of leaders in the parish. She selected six English-speaking and six Spanish-speaking parishioners per group. They met once a month to learn about one another’s cultures. 

In the meetings, they would discuss controversial — and often divisive — topics.

“It’s important to realize the roots of behavior,” Annie said, “so you can be aware of issues (and) conflicts in multicultural communities.”

After a few years, Annie and Angelo said they wanted to further their outreach and look beyond the walls of the parish and the borders of the United States. They started a missionary outreach in Saltillo, Mexico.

“People here think that missionary work is getting a hammer and nails and building something,” Angelo said, shaking his head.

For St. Joseph’s, missionary work is getting to know people, praying with them and eating with them.

Several members of the missionary group attend the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute so they can better serve the community in Mexico.

Members of the Saltillo community in Mexico come to Norman for the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in December.

A novena, a nine day prayer, is traditionally said leading up to the feast day. The people from Saltillo pray the novena with parishioners in the evening and visit their homes during the day.

On the feast day, everyone gets up early for mañanitas: early morning sung prayers. Parishioners and the ministers from Saltillo meet at St. Joseph’s for prayer and breakfast. 

After everyone goes to work and school, all return in the evening to pack the church for the Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Before the Mass begins, Matachines dancers fill the aisles of the church. Their feathered headdresses sport a rainbow of colors and their skirts ebb and flow with their movements. At the end of the celebration, they lead the congregation out of the church and continue dancing at the fiesta that follows. 

The future of St. Joseph’s

Joseph Irwin has been the pastor at St. Joseph’s for about a year. Before arriving, he served the Hispanic community across Oklahoma for 13 years as a priest.

Irwin said he worked to understand the culture and the needs of the Hispanic people and their different expectations from their church and priest.  

“I feel blessed to be here because a lot of work was done before I got here to minister to the Hispanic community,” Irwin said. 

Irwin said Hispanic immigrants come from a Catholic culture — it’s embedded in their daily lives. They bring that with them, Irwin said, and want to raise their children to receive all the sacraments. 

The Hispanic community is growing at St Joseph’s. Irwin said he performs seven baptisms in Spanish per one baptism in English. Annie, who teaches religious education, said 95 percent of the 400 kids in the program are Hispanic, compared to 50 percent only 5 years ago. 

Irwin also performs a quinceñera about every other month, he said. The celebration has a strong religious context for Hispanic people. He said it’s important for the family of a 15-year-old girl that she come to the church to celebrate and dedicate her life to God through the Blessed Mother. Irwin said after the ceremony at the church there is a huge fiesta that follows.

“It’s obvious who the future of the parish is,” Irwin said.

But Angelo hopes that St. Joseph’s remains multicultural, despite some backlash from the Anglo community.

“There are people who don’t feel comfortable around other cultures,” he said. “They make the decision to move elsewhere.” 

The need for the second Mass in Spanish required moving the times of other Masses. This led to tension and resistance with some members of the community, especially in the current political climate of the U.S. 

“It’s amazing how that can create havoc in a parish community,” Angelo said. 

Angelo said he admired former priest Scott Boeckman who made the decision to cause unrest by choosing to serve both communities. Boeckman also added bilingual signage, website content and bulletins so that parish messages get to all parishioners equally. 

Irwin remembers both communities coming together for a bilingual celebration of St. Joseph’s feast day. The Mass had music that spoke to both languages and cultures, he said. Parishioners participated in a potluck and brought food they liked. 

“We had over 300 people (who) came and it was the first time I saw a balance in the community,” Irwin said. “Typically it leans one way or the other, but that was one of the first events where we were looking around and going, ‘There are as many of our Hispanic community as there are Anglo.’”

St. Joseph’s continues to be a very diverse community, all rooted in the integration of the communities initiated by Angelo Lombardo.

“There is always the opportunity to experience different cultures through the fiestas, food and celebrations,” Angelo said.

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